An Interview with Cliff Seruntine

1. Your new book is Seasons of the Sacred Earth, in which you detail your family's life on an eco-friendly homestead in Nova Scotia. What inspired you and your family to create such a life of living in connection with the land?

As far back as I can recall, I was always drawn deeply to the green world. I was born in New Orleans, but my mother had been raised on a farm in the back country, surrounded by bayous and deep, dark woodlands. My earliest memories are of her teaching me how to identify wild edible plants, showing me Indian burial mounds, and warning me to avoid les feux follets—faerie beings of Acadian legend, much like the British will-o-the-wisp. I fell in love with that green world of life and magic, and almost as soon as I started school, I was begging her for a microscope of my own so I could see the life in a drop of pond water. When we moved permanently back to my grandparents' little farm, I was delighted; my days became a non-stop romp through the woods and swamps and bayous. I could go endless days with nothing but a knife, a bit of fishing line, and what are now called bushcraft skills (but what were to me just skills of living: finding wild food, making lean-to camps, and finding my way through the wild wood).

My wife Daphne grew up in the countryside of western Canada. Her mother maintained a nice garden and some fruit trees, but Daphne would say she was more an "edge-of-small-town" girl. She did not know the real wild country like I did, but she loved the peace and fulfillment of living close to Nature, the realness of knowing from where her food came, and the satisfaction of being able to provide for herself, whether that was making clothes or patching a fence. When we got together, we knew from the start that we wanted to carry on lives close to the green world, and we wanted our children to know that world, too.

We delved headlong into that way of life when we went to Alaska together, and though living in that remote bush was challenging, we often speak of it as simple and sublime. We heated with wood, ate berries and potherbs from the forest and game from the lake and tundra, learned to navigate in a landscape where there is no meaningful east or west, and reveled in the raw, rugged beauty of it all. I took up shamanic studies and came to realize how tightly linked the Otherworld is to the natural world, and how fulfilling it is to live in that nexus. Daphne never took up the shaman's way, but she felt it, too. And we came to desire to do more for the land than just live close to it—we wanted to give something back. We wanted to be able to farm in ways that were easy on Earth. We wanted to share the bushcraft and rural living skills we had developed. I wanted to share what the wild places had taught me of the ways of spirit and magic. And so we came to a place that allowed us to do all those things.

2. You've lived all over, from the bayous of Louisiana to the Alaskan bush. What brought you to Nova Scotia?

When we made the decision to create a permaculture-based homestead, we gave thought to a lot of places. I had connections in New Zealand and Daphne had connections in Australia. With my background as a therapist, and since Canada is part of the British Commonwealth, we did not think it would be too difficult to emigrate to either of those countries. We even gave thought to acquiring a farmstead in Scotland or Wales, which really appealed to me because it would have afforded me more chances to study the faerie faith folklore. But after so many years in truly wild places, I realized I needed a lot of space, wild woods, some place with untamed land. Nova Scotia was a good balance of our desires, with woodlands, a marginally suitable climate for farming (at least in the northeast), ample water, and highlands. But there was something else, something very important to us: Nova Scotia is home to three remarkable peoples. The Acadians are here; these are my own ancestors, and I already knew their culture and language. The Aboriginals known as the Mi'kmaq (Me'mah) are here. And the Gaels of Scotland are the predominant group here, giving North America its only living Gaelic culture. Each of these groups has ancient and still living legends of a faerie faith. The Acadians call them les feys (pronounced "lay fae"), the Gaels call them the sithchean (pronounced like "shee-chahn"—though it is not possible to translate the breathy, guttural "ch" sound into English phonetics), and the Mi'kmaq call them the Megumoowesoo. The Aboriginals of Alaska know these beings, too, and call them the Inuqun. By whatever name you call them, these are the little spirits shamans often seek to commune with. So coming here offered an irreplaceable chance to learn more about ancient beliefs in spirit beings of the wild places and remote rural areas—beliefs that were predominant in old Europe, throughout much of the rest of the ancient world, and which still occur today in some places. And it made sense to me, from a point of view, that if three distinct cultures maintained living faerie faiths in this region, there must be a reason. Nova Scotia must be a place of power. And so it was we found this place to be beautifully enchanted.

3. You've described your Twa Corbies homestead as an "enchanted forest." Why is that?

I've visited wild woods around the world, and there are, in truth, many places I would describe as enchanted forests. The glens of Scotland are so filled with the power of ancient legend that you can feel it, magic like flowing water. The subarctic cottonwood glens, with their crystal rivers and remarkable wildlife, are the sites of ancient shamans and the haunts of the fey beings called Inuqun. Some places seem to draw enchantment to them; they seem to be naturally the haunts of beings not quite of this reality. Or power places where one can touch the spirit world. I've found much of the woodlands of Nova Scotia to be like that. And indeed we've all experienced it: I and my daughters and even Daphne, who is in fact imminently practical and grounded.

4. Seasons of the Sacred Earth describes how we can better understand the Wheel of the Year and its profound lessons when we are living in harmony with nature. Why do you feel that is?

Every season comes in myriad shades. There is, for example, earliest spring when the days first warm and the sweet sap flows in the maples, just beckoning a sap bucket to be mounted even though it may mean long treks in deep snow. There is mid-spring, when the grass first shows hints of green after the winter ice is gone. We turn the livestock out of the barn and they practically bounce over the meadows for the pure joy of the greening world. The young grass is sweet as candy to them. The cerulean sky is rife with ruby-hued pine grosbeaks, butter-yellow finches, bright pileated woodpeckers and purple tinted European starlings. The first peepers announce spring merrily down at the pond. Then comes late spring, with its rain and wind and occasional perfect days that plead with you to establish gardens and prune trees, and the deer appear at the woods' edge with new fawns. The land is caught up in a joyous rebirth. It is hectic and gleeful and yet paced just right. It is full of joys as new young are born to the goat flock, and tinged with sadness as the weak pass away. It is a time of rich bounty as the chickens resume vigorous egg-laying. It is a time to set out faerie plates and thank the powers for the waking of the sun and soil. The spirits sough in the evergreens and seem in an especially talkative mood, if you just wander into the woods and know how to listen.

These things are marvels, each coming as seasons within seasons, each with its own way of approach, its own challenges and gifts. But to sense the subtleties of this complex symphony, there needs be a profound communion. I know of no shortcuts to it. It comes of knowing well the sacred land, and if you know it, there is language in everything. The sky tells you what it has in store for tomorrow. The subtlest tracks tell the tales of how the animals are living at that time of year. The clarity in a goat's eye tells you how thawed the soil is. Know the green world, and you soon find it talks to you; it freely tells you its secrets.

I have found that if you come to understand these things, and live by them, life begins to take on a rhythm that feels very right. It feels good for the body and soul. Every season becomes its own special journey, and that makes every season sacred.

You know, many things—if they get out of sync with the seasons—can ruin them. I have a great, old, dead tree in the yard near the cottage, but it was thriving until just a few years ago. One year, a warm couple weeks came especially early and it sprouted its new leaves; the weather then turned and became wintry again. The old tree, terribly out of sync, lost its leaves and died. I think humans have more in common with that tree than we know, certainly more than we like to admit. Nature has made us to live a Way—that was the gentle process of evolution. But we have gone and forced another way—the violent process of change. We often confuse the two, you know: evolution and change. We try to come up with ways better than Nature and impose that on ourselves. Now many of us live lives grossly out of sync. How many do you know who are happy? They have stuff, prestige perhaps. But how many are really happy? You'd be amazed how many deeply unhappy people I meet in my work as a therapist. Most of them think that's just how life is supposed to be—miserable, full of meaningless, unfulfilling labor, and you make the best of it. They can't even imagine another Way. I don't think so; life should be filled with joy despite the challenges. It should be happy. What I've found is that happiness is closely tied to how well we accept and live within Nature's patterns—the pattern millions of years of evolution has bestowed upon us. And so, it is essential to know the turning of the seasons. They offer us a right and good flow and rhythm for life.

5. How have your experiences as a psychotherapist, shaman, and naturalist impacted your time at Two Corbies Hollow?

Wow! That is an immense question—a book unto itself. The most important thing I learned about psychotherapy, psychology, psychiatry and all the related disciplines is there are no real answers in them. Sure, I can teach an anxious person how to manage stress. I can teach a depressed person how to change depressive thoughts and behaviors. But the profession is over-valued—it has no profound answers to life's deeper questions. Despite all the claims, they cannot show you how to live a better marriage, find happiness, or what you should really do with your life. All they can do is give you a few limited tools. Tools are especially useful, but only for the purpose for which they were designed. A hammer is a remarkable device for joining the wood that comprises a house, but it's about useless at showing you how to live in it.

Practicing shamanism, that is something deeper. It is a path that shows a lot more about the whys we encounter in life. Rather, it is a path that is all about opening the eyes. To follow the way of the shaman (and I use the term broadly, to encompass all the paths that intertwine spirituality, magic, and a green-based philosophy), one has to be one's own most cruel and hardest critic, for the first step is a painful self-unmaking. You must face your faults and be honest with yourself about them. And with that knowledge, you rebuild yourself and aim to be the best person you can. To care for others. To look after the Earth. To listen to the spirits. It is said there is power in shamanism, too, and I suppose there is. Some shamans shape shift in spirit form and find things. They gain spirit helpers and accomplish things. But I have found the greatest gift of the path of the shaman is learning to listen and see at all levels, for that is the gift that brings wisdom.

Being a naturalist: some will undoubtedly disagree, but I don't think you can really be a shaman without being a naturalist. A naturalist is just one who invests in understanding the green world. Naturalists are also known for their love of the natural world. As Harner noted in his book, The Way of the Shaman, a respectful understanding of Nature is a prerequisite of the shamanic (or magical or spiritual) state of mind. What I find is that the more I know of the natural world, the more aware I become of the marvelousness of it all. That so many pieces of such a puzzle could fit together so perfectly, that each could in and of itself out sparkle the shiniest gemstone—it is a true wonder. And as each part Nature's picture is filled through my studies of natural lore, it is like watching another tree grow. Eventually the trees form a forest—and within that forest is enchantment.

6. What do you hope your readers will take away from Seasons of the Sacred Earth?

I'll just quote from Seasons: "Happiness comes of life and balance. It is rooted in good friends, good family, sustainable lives, and spiritual fulfillment."

In my work as a therapist, I cannot tell you all the persons, from highly payed corporate execs to ordinary day-to-day folk, I have spoken to over the years who have approached me with this conundrum: "I've spent my whole life making money, building my career, getting the bigger house and shinier car. Now I have all that and its like opening a gift only to discover the box is empty. Is there anything more?"

Yes, there is so much more. But no one and nothing can give it to you, nor can you take it, for more is not a thing to be had, it is a Way to walk. Every man and woman must find the Way themselves. But we humans have a terrible knack for presuming we will find happiness in the baubles that accumulate around the Way, and thus we get lost along the journey.

Happiness comes when we live wisely and well, with ourselves, with each other, and with this good Earth. Impetus and a starting place to find that Way is what I hope they take from Seasons of the Sacred Earth.

About Cliff Seruntine

Cliff Seruntine (Nova Scotia, Canada) is a naturalist, a practicing shaman, a writer, a fiddler, and has a psychotherapist private practice. Since 2007, he has lived with his family on their semi-remote homestead where they ...

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